1. Monthly Comments
2. Culling the Net:
A Lesson on the Dark Side
by Jamie McKenzie
3. Dancing Past Obsolescence
by Jamie McKenzie
----- Monthly Comments ----
The roll-out of the Power MacIntosh and the appearance of RISC architecture represent a major shift in the landscape as commentators and critics proclaim a new age of computing. For those who work in schools with an aging and declining hardware base and little hope for purchase of new equipment in the near future, the fanfare must seem a bit like a parade in some far distant land heard as a faint echo. For those same schools, the electronic highway seems to be passing them by without offering any entrance ramps. It is ironic and sad that each advance in technology is accompanied by an apparent widening of the gap between the haves and the have nots. Some rushed out to place new orders of Power PCs while others prodded their aging Apples into motion. Let's hope we come to see the day when all children in this democracy have access to good technology regardless of their town, their parents' income or their group.
Copyright Policy: Materials published in From Now On may be duplicated for educational, non-profit school district use only. In any other case, contact the editor for permission.
Culling the Net: A Lesson on the Dark Side
by Jamie McKenzie
When you haul your nets aboard, like any good fishing folk, you must then sort through the collection to find what's worth keeping - what's worth carrying back to port and ultimately what's going to sell in the marketplace of ideas. Of course, even when your haul is safe in the ship's belly, the journey has just begun. Your catch must be "processed" and packed for shipping. Once at the market it must be propped up and put on display in an eye-catching (or mind-catching) manner so that someone will "buy into" your thinking. Closed minds can be coaxed open to relinquish bias, bigotry and ignorance. If you have done your job well, the insight you (or your students) have achieved will be infectious. Others may come to see and understand what you have grasped. Illumination. Revelation. A community of shared meaning.
Not so long ago, the hard and time-consuming part of research was the gathering of information. Today that is the easiest part. Internet and electronic encyclopedias offer mountains of data and information (much of it info-garbage) which can be swiftly downloaded and stored on one's own desktop. A fourth grader conducting a Veronica search on Internet for files covering ancient Egypt may suddenly find a menu of 1200 or more documents ready for reading . . . and culling. It can be overwhelming, especially if one has no toolkit for culling.
Gone are the days of simple copying onto note cards. Remember the "change one word in every sentence" rule? Now we have small children carrying around hundreds of pages of text on diskettes which fit in their pockets. Can you imagine a young woman offering to carry a young man's diskette home from school? Hardly a romantic notion!
So . . . This is an article devoted to the skill of culling. It flows developmentally out of an article entitled "Grazing the Net" which first appeared in From Now On in December. Since culling is a subset of a larger family of skills associated with "synthesis," for those who love sequence and order, it may pay to read the other article first. On the other hand, if you sometimes plunge into the middle in order to hop around and through someone else's thinking, if you enjoy grazing and surprise, you might as well jump right in. Save the big picture for later.
1. Avoiding Darkness
"When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all. But my lack of education hasn't hurt me much. I can read the writing on the wall."
Paul Simon, Kodachrome
Schools have generally paid too little attention to darkness in the past. The sage on the stage shares insight. Students commit memory, scribbling down furiously whatever is deemed "noteworthy." There are far too few opportunities to explore the unknown or make meaning.
School learning is too often like the man searching for his car keys at the edge of the parking lot under the street lamp. When asked if he lost his keys nearby, he answers, "No, but I am looking here because the light is good."
We feed students certainties, scientific laws and shopworn truths unlikely to survive the rapid change of the Information Age, remaining within the comforting glow of the street lamp, while we should be showing them how to search for meaning in the shadows.
2. Probing Darkness
Because the creation of insight requires the building of answers rather than the finding of answers, a true investigator or researcher spends a good deal of time probing darkness, exploring regions and realms of thought which may have escaped prior scrutiny. There are few signposts, route maps or tour guides to show the way. The pioneer blazes a trail where no human thought may have trod. It is not unusual to get lost, suffer fog and lose heart.
In some ways, the search for meaning and truth is parallel to the hero's journey. Illumination is rarely gained without first suffering pain, dis-illusionment and defeat. Somehow they usually fail to teach us that in school.
3. Darkness and Culling
What does darkness have to do with culling?
When you don't know what you don't know, it is difficult to determine what it is you need to explore or what you can safely throw away. When we fish from the concrete piers of our certainties, we hook mostly bottomfish of the most ordinary kind. It is when we head for the open seas with our lines trolling behind us that we are apt to land the big fish like Hemingway's Old Man.
How do we sort through a menu of thousands of files? Since bias and personal comfort both rely upon the screening of information to match misconceptions, it is easy to fall into the trap of opening and retaining only those articles which support our point of view.
If we hate the timber interests, we delete their data, their research and their papers like rotten bottom fish. "Don't confuse my mind with facts." If we hate the environmentalists, we delete whatever the Sierra Club posts over Internet. We keep searching for keys where there is already light.
4. Discipline, Courage and Intuition
The search for truth requires discipline, courage and intuitive skill.
In seeking insight on essential questions, the student must practice patterned searching, looking for the missing puzzle pieces rather than jumping to those pieces most easily found and right at hand. Central to this practice is questioning: "What am I overlooking? What other ideas might be out there? Who else may be thinking about this? Have I covered all the bases? How are my biases blocking my exploration? Do I have blinders on?"
As an element of a student's disciplined inquiry, persistence figures in mightily. Now that it takes just a few moments to identify hundreds of pages of "stuff," it will be tempting to stop there. The student must stick with the search until the net is filled with "the right stuff." The "right stuff" is that collection of ideas, data and information which is structured broadly and deeply enough to support illumination.
* Courage - The search for insight is often uncomfortable, and searches are often frustrating. Catford and Ray(1991, The path of the everyday hero. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc.) draw a close parallel between the stages of the hero's journey and the six stages of the creative process
We are not likely to achieve illumination without experiencing frustration. We are unlikely to move past frustration if we do not know how to incubate and strategize.
Historically speaking, student research in schools, generally topical in nature, has not required extensive work on the six stages listed above. Courage is required to maintain commitment and optimism even when insight in hidden somewhere in the darkness.
* Intuitive Skill - While logic is helpful in structuring searches, intuition is even more important when exploring darkness. Intuition - "a sense of something not evident or deducible" (American Heritage Dictionary, 1969) - is a talent employed by artists but neglected by the population (and schools) at large. Intuition leaps across a long menu or list to grasp unusual connections and relationships. Intuition holds a passionate regard for surprise and mild contempt for the obvious. Intuition prefers darkness and shadow to bright light.
Recent attempts to improve mathematics have come squarely into conflict with a long history of teaching students to follow set procedures. The parallel with research on the Internet is evident:
. . . by reducing mathematics to the following of set procedures, these teachers were inadvertently robbing their students of the opportunity to "do" mathematics. Because students' intuitive ideas about making sense of mathematics were ignored, and therefore devalued, the development of their mathematical reasoning skills was impeded.
Michael T. Battista "Teacher Beliefs and the Reform Movement in Mathematics Education Phi Delta Kappan, March, 1994, p. 467.
5. Culling the Net for Darkness
Knowing that I might search for "darkness" in the collections of poetry and song lyrics on the Net, an hour's fishing resulted in a word processing file with more than 200 pages of poems and songs. But this first collection was just the beginning. Opening the file with a word processing program, I began searching for the word "darkness" in order to decide which poems and songs might actually prove illuminating.
It did not take long to realize that I was searching through great hunks of words which had very little to do with darkness. Some of the poems were very long, while the references to darkness might be minor. The song lyrics came as entire albums. Perhaps one song dealt with darkness. So I began eliminating and culling.
200 pages soon became 50 pages. The list of poets and song writers included the following:
C. Elizabeth Sawyer Maya Angelou
Gilbert Sorrentino Miroslav Holub
Thomas Gray Sylvia Plath
Bruce Springsteen Camper Van Beethoven
Alice Cooper Ozzie Osbourne Jane Siberry
Richard Farina Paul Simon
Stephen Stills, Graham Nash & Michael Stergis
David Lynch(l)/Angelo Badalamenti
Amy Grant, Gary Chapman, Jerry McPherson
Even 50 pages of poems seemed overwhelming. How might I glean the most insight from this collection?
The next step was to reduce the mass further by compiling key phrases and sentences. Now I was finally down to three pages of fragments.
Scanning this new document, I was suddenly struck by how little wisdom remained. In taking lines from context, I had reduced import. Instead of distilling and condensing, I had fragmented. The list was manageable, but the ideas had turned abruptly petty and pedestrian. My reliance upon logic and analysis had killed the art. Insight fled for cover.
Backpedaling rapidly, I loaded the CD player with a Jane Siberry disk and cranked up the volume. Insight crept out of hiding, new ideas began to incubate and the journey toward illumination was underway.
I had discovered the limits of culling. In our rush for meaning, we can too easily discard and eliminate. We can carve up the ideas so that they cease breathing and speaking.
6. Constructing New Ideas: No Wine Before It's Time
Over the course of several weeks I played with the idea of darkness as I drove around town, ran, read various books and took a 4 year old friend for walks at night. The Internet songs and poems set my mind in motion. Given time and a bit of old-fashioned reverie, the ideas began to dance and weave, forming new associations and relationships. Some even spawned children.
Miroslav Holub's poem about Prometheus and the gift of fire reminded me that powerful forces (the gods, the citizens of Athens, the mind police) have always tried to keep humans from lighting their own fires of illumination. What will they do to shape our children's experience with the Internet?
The vast majority of the poems and songs painted darkness as some kind of enemy to be avoided or conquered. The Prince of Darkness was a favorite character in rock music, with groups like the Indigo Girls warning us to resist his power:
If the Latin root of "educate" means "lead out of," can we equip students with the kind of "sight" the Indigo Girls mention in their song? Or must it be through some gift of grace?
At the same time, several poets and song writers seemed to encourage familiarity with darkness:
Bruce Springsteen . . .
They associate darkness with dreams and passion.
Jane Siberry even suggests that all the candles in the world . . .
. . . as she is about to kneel in prayer. Darkness, thus, is associated with depths of feeling, faith and soul. As Shakespeare poses the question:
Who can distinguish darkness from the soul?
Jane Siberry states the challenge as " . . . piercing the darkness into the light." Across the collection there is the suggestion that salvation involves some kind of struggle against the forces of darkness. Revelation lifts the soul from the grasp of the Prince.
Shakespeare, in "The Rape of Lucrece," paints an especially harsh picture of night:
7. Moving Far Afield - Adding Resources
Limiting thought to the materials on the Internet would be folly. In my own exploration of darkness it was the interplay between electronic text and other experiences and resources which led to the most profound insights. The folks at SYNECTICS, a creative problem-solving consulting firm in Cambridge, teach the power of excursions to enrich the production of teams. We might bear that in mind as we set up investigations for students. What is a healthy and provocative mixture of real world, multi-sensory experience, grazing on the Net, enjoyment of art and reading of books?
a. Excursion into Darkness - In January I spent several evenings exploring my neighborhood with a 4 year old after nightfall. I handed Sam a big 6 volt flashlight and let him lead the way. His curiosity led him to peer down alleyways and stoop low to shine his light into the root system of a large bank of shrubs. An unusually fearless child to begin with, he was an avid consumer of darkness, piercing the deepest blackness with his electric spear.
Two months later the image of Sam crouching over with his flashlight keeps stimulating my thinking about darkness. I wonder about flashlights. We are warned to walk through the forest without them so our eyes may "grow used to the darkness." What meaning is there in this advice for students and the Internet? Is an intensely focused search likely to miss more than it finds?
b. Excursion into Traditional Text - Once I began my inquiry in earnest, I kept encountering reading which touched upon darkness in one way or another. In Soul Mates, Thomas Moore advocates a closer relationship with darkness:
According to John of the Cross, if you want certainty in your path, walk in darkness.
Mindful of the tendency of the majority culture to portray darkness and blackness negatively, I also turned to Langston Hughes to find warner, kinder images.
8. Conclusion: Culling Must Be Informed by Insight
I discovered during this exploration of darkness that my culling skills were flawed and my blades too sharp, too quick to cut and eliminate. I emerged realizing that I knew too little at the outset to cut away material wisely. I found myself returning to the biggest, unculled file to see what I had missed with my first cut.
The lesson for those who work with students is the value of teaching them to "muck around" a bit in the material before eliminating and cutting. We must encourage them to open and read poems or articles which appear irrelevant. All too often, it is the surprises which inform the mind most powerfully. The irony is that culling becomes most meaningful as one begins to develop new insights.
It is only by beginning to discover what we do not know that we become open to learning more about it. We are, otherwise, too much like the small boy exploring the night with a powerful flashlight. The beam creates the illusion of understanding, but it is far too narrow in its focus. We do better shutting off such beams and relying upon our night vision. We do better lighting candles.
by Jamie McKenzie
The rapid pace of software development - when combined with the emergence of powerful new chips and operating systems - places all school technology programs and decision-makers at risk. Almost any purchase made during the next twelve months is perilous. Those who are still struggling with a large installed base of Apple IIes and IIGSs know the price one pays for investing in hardware which continues to operate long past the time when their functions are even remotely analogous to real world applications. In times of belt-tightening, it is difficult to explain the importance of "refreshing" the installed base of computing and other technologies to those who think that a computer is a computer is a computer. It is also difficult to explain sometimes why the extra $300-$500 per machine to buy a faster chip and more RAM makes perfectly good sense when the extra cost means that fewer students will have access to equipment as a limited budget is strained to buy hefty equipment.
This article offers a few strategies to meet the challenge mentioned above. They are meant to ease the problem, not solve it.
1. Strategy One - Buy Race Horses Only for the Races
Schools all too often purchase and then schedule the use of computer models without carefully considering the applications which will be run on them. Some applications (especially desktop publishing, multimedia, high end graphics, statistics and large databases) bog down dramatically if they are run on slow machines with little RAM. Students may spend as much as 50 per cent of their time staring at a screen while a function is being performed. By upgrading the $1300 machine to a faster chip and more RAM, by spending an additional $500, wait time may be cut down to 5-10 per cent. A 38 per cent increase in spending nearly doubles performance. Another way of stating the benefit is to say that twice as many students can work on the machines or twice as much work can be completed.
The flip side of this same issue is that other applications such as word processing can often be quite adequately performed on very inexpensive $250 portables from which a text file can be dumped into a far more expensive PC or MAC when it is time to add multimedia, graphics or more powerful elements. Even though it is an enormous waste of computing power to draft documents on race horses, many schools load a lab with powerful units and then assign classes to the facility without considering whether or not the students really need that much power.
Consider the economics. A school might equip two labs with 30 fast and powerful pcs or MACs and a file server each for about $100,000. Or equip one lab with 30 fast and powerful pcs or MACs for about $50,000 and spend the remaining $50,000 to establish five 30 station mother/father ships of portables, each with a MAC and a printer for downloading and production.
The same consideration applies to the purchase of items such as internal CD-ROM players. If the machines in question will make use of those players on a consistent and frequent basis and the CD-ROMs cannot be efficiently served over a network because they are too graphic for speedy serving, then it may make sense to pay the extra money for the players, but if they are being purchased "just in case" and their actual use may amount to less than 5 per cent of the time, it makes better sense to offer CD-ROM players in fewer machines in special, central locations such as media centers or in a few lab machines.
This strategy can be summed up as differentiated and carefully scheduled use. If we identify in advance the kinds of programs we will launch with equipment, we can then buy several different models, some of which are race horses and some of which are work horses. We can then place and schedule the units where their school functions match their capabilities. Right there in the same building we can gather together the "hand-me-downs" from the previous decade which still blink patiently along doing relatively crude assignments.
A differentiated strategy makes it possible to buy some extraordinary machines such as the Power PC with 16 M of RAM and Soft Windows to bridge platforms and help explore the next generation of software. At the same time it maximizes access, efficiency and utilization for a host of applications which do not require blazing speed.
2. Strategy Two - Connect to Networks Only When Connectivity Pays Big
Networks can impair the performance of existing hardware to an amazing extent, and they can require substantially more expensive hardware. Perfectly respectable pcs can grind to a near halt when they are suddenly linked to a local area network with mail and a file server. It may be necessary to invest in major upgrades in order to restore the former processing speed. While it may be tempting to connect everybody and all machines, it pays to conduct a cost benefit analysis before throwing everybody onto the network. What real productivity is likely to emerge as a result of connectivity? What are the risks? What will it take to address those risks and maintain efficiency? Unfortunately, the unsuspecting and inexperienced consumer often hears only of the benefits and wakes up to the costs after it is too late.
If connectivity delivers extraordinary information resources from the Internet or CD-ROM towers to the desktop and the users will make frequent use of those resources, the investment may be sound. But how real will access be? It is one thing to connect with the Internet over a local area network through a district node. It is quite another to do so without traffic delays. Along the same vein, if connectivity delivers electronic mail and a great deal of authentic communication which meets program needs, the investment may be sound. But if the units in question perform e-mail only minutes each day and the performance of the lab suffers the rest of the day because of the connectivity, it may be that connectivity can be more limited.
Any forward-thinking school should be building access ramps to the Net and should be connecting a good number of computers to LANs and a district WAN, but it may not be wise to connect all computers. The decision should be made case by case.
3. Strategy Three - Beware the Desktop Strangler
Vendor marketing has cleverly convinced many teachers that they must have a computer sitting on their desk as a major productivity tool. In many cases those computers may be used less than 30 minutes per day. The fault may lie in the failure to provide projection devices so that the computer may be used instructionally. It may be a lack of staff development supporting program integration. Regardless of why the machines are not used, it is a poor investment. In some high schools 500 students are restricted to two labs of 25 computers while the faculty of 50 enjoys an equivalent number of computers which stand virtually idle much of the day. If those staff computers are linked to information resources and if they are supplemented with 3-5 additional student computers in the classroom, the computers can become an integral part of a modern science, social studies or language arts classroom, but stand-alone computers can drain away a huge chunk of resources with out delivering much to student learning.
4. Strategy Four - Beware the Software Upgrade
Software manufacturers specialize in rapid obsolescence. While they are quick to brag about the amazing new features of their up-grades, the steady march of progress serves to drain huge amounts of dollars away from the technology program in at least two respects.
First of all, many of the upgrades cause compatibility problems with older versions as well as status issues within the organization. "Do you have the latest version of Word?" one secretary asks another. "It's on order," replies the second, wishing to be au courrant. In the case of many regular users of such programs most of the "bells and whistles of the earlier version remain unused and untested. As much as 35 per cent of the features have never been touched. Whether it be templates or macros, it is usually only the power user who has pushed the earlier version to its limits. But the hype is strong and the organizational tide difficult to resist. Free upgrades of recent purchasers' software help to set the hook and create the wave of incompatibility.
The second drain comes when the existing hardware base can barely manage to run the new version. New versions of software almost never arrive as Wordless or Persuasion. Perhaps it is time for software manufacturers to brag about how little their packages demand from our machines. The software upgrade may cost $125 for a high end graphics program and require an 8 megabyte upgrade of the computer at $750. The announcement of an upgrade can often produce more of a wince than a cheer of joy.
5. Strategy Five - Beware the Bleeding Edge
Sometimes we spend a good deal of extra money and suffer much needless pain by rushing to download the latest technology from the first truck out of the factory. Even though we should be exploring the capabilities of new offerings in limited pilots, the first 6-12 months can bring major disappointments and risks. All too often we have seen delays in the delivery of the dazzling new software promised to follow the announcement and delivery of the blazing new computers. Waiting and running limited tests through the shake-down period often makes sense.
6. Strategy Six - Buy Flexibility When Possible
Some models of equipment are easier to modify and upgrade than others. They are designed to grow and adjust to a changing software landscape. School systems must ask what changes might be made at reasonable cost to models during each of the three or four years after purchase. If the answer is "none," it may make sense to select a different model.
7. Strategy Seven - Regard the Pipeline
Some districts have been shocked to learn of a new model shortly after purchasing a whole parcel of new computers. The new model is much faster and more powerful and is priced very attractively. Feelings of betrayal, anger and embarrassment run strong at such times. While it is very difficult to penetrate the security and secrecy which vendors can wrap around such product roll-outs, districts would be wise to invest in developing regional networks and personal relationships which might feed them early warning signs and signals.
The challenge of dancing around obsolescence is somewhat hopeless, in part because the technology industry offers genuine improvements at an amazing rate and in part because some changes are thrust upon us without much choice. The best we can hope to do is deploy resources strategically and hedge our bets.
Credits: The background is from Jay Boersma.
Other drawings and graphics are by Jamie McKenzie.
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